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The cold hasn't arrived yet, but officials are already concerned that this will be a tough winter.

In anticipation of federal funding cuts, New York has delayed the start of its Home Energy Assistance Program, or HEAP, and reduced benefit amounts anywhere from 30 to 60 percent.

Instead of beginning on Nov. 1, HEAP will open to the public on Nov. 16 this heating season.

What's more, the program could end in March instead of April; the maximum benefits for the season have been lowered for all fuel types; and emergency funding for applicants who exhaust their

regular HEAP awards won't be available until after the new year.

Compounding the problem, local nonprofit groups that help fill in the gaps - and who are beset by their own funding cuts affecting clients - worry they won't be able to handle the increased overflow from HEAP. And rising prices for many types of fuel means assistance dollars won't stretch as far.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration says natural gas, propane and heating oil prices should rise between 5 and 10 percent in the Northeast this winter, which will be only partially offset by milder temperatures.

According to Anthony Farmer, spokesman for the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, the HEAP changes were prompted by an uncertain funding picture at the federal level.

New York received $521 million last year for HEAP. Proposals this year range from $428 million in the Senate to $343 million in the House, according to the office of U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.

The federal budget has not been completed, but Farmer said the state is not taking any chances.

"It's safe to say we are concerned (about the federal funding level), and it's safe to say that's why we have taken some of the steps we have taken," he said.

To reach as many households as possible, the maximum regular benefits available this year have been lowered. The maximum HEAP benefit for residents who heat with oil, kerosene or propane fell from $700 last heating season to $500 this year. Maximum allowances for wood, pellets and coal dropped from $700 to $300. And electric and natural gas allowances max out at $300 this year, down from $500.

Holly Rapp, director of assistance programs for Washington County, said she expects to process the same number of HEAP applications, but the aid won't last as long. She is warning clients about the changes and is advising them to seek help from the county before their power is shut off, as HEAP may not be able to turn it back on this year.

"Those are big changes for people, and with the economy being the way it is, obviously they are quite concerned," she said.

It's scary news, too, for nonprofit groups that have been doing more with less for a few years.

Organizations like the Salvation Army and Warren-Hamilton Community Action Agency provide a safety net when families run out of HEAP benefits or find themselves in need outside the federal program's operational calendar.

For its part, Community Action is expecting to be less prepared to help with heating and housing emergencies this winter season, said Executive Director Lynn Ackershoek.

The agency spent $45,000 on housing or utility assistance programs during the last fiscal year, which ended in September. This year, there may be $25,000 to $30,000 for the same services.

The Greater Glens Falls Salvation Army has a similar outlook. The nonprofit is coming off a record year for emergency assistance - it spent double what it budgeted for electric heating aid - and dealing with a drastic reduction to its own funding sources.

"Everything that we have relied on in the past has been cut drastically or eliminated," said Major David Dean. "It looks like it's shaping up to be one of the perfect storm kind of years."

Dean has met with his board of directors about the impact from HEAP cuts. The agency expects it will have to appeal to the community for donations after the new year.

Tri-County United Way Executive Director Barbara Sweet said the local nonprofit community works well together and will pool its resources, but there is only so much money available. Given the signs, she said the local well may run dry before the winter need subsides, sending families in need of shelter back to county departments of social services.

"There are going to be people that (agencies) are not going to be able to help that they have helped in the past," Sweet said during a recent meeting with The Post-Star editorial board.

In the meantime, the United Way is raising awareness about its resource guide, which lists available programs and assistance. She is also asking neighbors to look out for one another this winter.

"We don't have a good feeling about this winter, and we are especially concerned about the HEAP cuts," Sweet said. "But we will band together."

For more information about HEAP, including where to apply for benefits locally, visit otda.ny.gov/programs/heap.

For the Tri-County United Way's resource guide or to make a donation, visit tcuwny.org, or call 793-3136.

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